The Merville Battery – Normandy, France

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Whilst the American Airborne operations on D-Day were concentrated around the Cotentin Peninsula and commemorated at the Airborne Museum and D-Day Experience museums, the British Airborne landings were on the eastern flank of the landings and are featured in two museums, Memorial Pegasus, which I covered in an earlier post and the Merville Battery.

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In 1942, the Organisation Todt commenced construction of the Merville Gun Battery as part of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall fortifications. Situated near the port town of Ouistreham on the eastern end of the Normandy coastline, the battery’s location was of strategic importance overseeing the estuary of the Orne and Caen canals as well as controlling maritime access to Caen. For Allied invasion planners looking at Normandy as a landing option, it also provided vital eastern flank protection and a pivot point for further advance.

Construction of the casemates at the Merville Battery.

Construction of the casemates at the Merville Battery.

By May 1944, the last two 1.8m thick, steel-reinforced casemates were completed and despite several air raids, the structures remained intact causing some consternation for the D-Day invasion planners who believed that the casemates housed 150mm guns capable of bombarding the beaches on which the British and Canadian 3rd Division were to land. In fact, the guns were first world war vintage Czech 100mm howitzers but with a range of over 8km they still posed a considerable threat to any invading force.

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May 1944 bomb damage assessment photograph of the Merville Battery.

It was vital that the Merville Battery be neutralised before the seaborne invasion and the task was given to the 9th (Essex) Parachute Battalion under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Terence Otway. In addition to the battalion, the operation would include sappers from the 591st (Antrim) Parachute Squadron, Royal Engineers and medics from No. 3 Section 224th (Parachute) Field Ambulance, taking the assault force to a strength of  650 men.

The battery, manned by 130 men of the 1716 Artillery Regiment, consisted of four artillery casemates along with command and personnel bunkers, a magazine, 20mm anti-aircraft gun platform, fifteen weapon pits each holding around 4 or 5 machine guns plus various outbuilding and shelters all in an enclosed area 640 by 460m. This was surrounded by two, 4.6m thick by 1.5m high, barbed-wire obstacles and a 91m deep minefield. A yet to be completed, 365m long, 4.5m wide by 3m deep anti-tank ditch also faced the casemates on the coastal side completing a formidable defensive position.

To prepare for the assault, a full-size mock-up was built by the Royal Engineers at Walbury Hill in Berkshire and the paras carried out nine practice assaults including four at night in preparation for the assault. Around 50 paras of A Company and some sappers were also retrained as Glider troops whose role was to crash land inside the perimeter, in three Horsa gliders to deliver a ‘coup-de-main’ during the final phase of the attack.

The plan was for the battalion to be divided into two groups with the first, smaller group jumping at 00:20 with the pathfinders to prepare the RV and also carry out reconnaissance on the battery. A bombing mission by Lancaster bombers was scheduled for just prior to the arrival of the paras and Otway wanted to know the extent of the damage before launching his assault. The main body, comprising B and C Companies would be the main assault force with B Company breaching the wire and clearing a path through the minefield which C Company along with the sappers would funnel through before splitting into four groups each tasked with destroying a casemate. This was timed to coincide with the three gliders landing inside the perimeter delivering the additional troops drawn from A Company and sappers carrying flamethrowers and explosive charges. The remainder of A Company, which jumped with the main force, had been tasked with securing and holding the firm base used as the launch pad for the ground assault. Then, if all else failed HMS Arethusa was standing by to pound the battery with her 6inch guns at 05:50.

9 Para prior to Merville

Members of the 9th (Essex) Parachute Battalion prior to em-planing for Merville Battery.

The advance party departed RAF Harwell at 23:10 and dropped on time at 00:20. Very little resistance was met on the DZ, but unfortunately many of the signal emitting Eureka Beacons were damaged during the drop and unable to be operated. The battery reconnaissance party set off for Merville whilst the pathfinder group marked the DZ only to be bombed by the Lancasters who had strayed off course and missed the target. Luckily nobody was injured and the DZ party attempted to guide the main body in using Aldis lamps.

By 00:45, 32 Dakotas carrying around 540 paratroopers were approaching the DZ, but the pilots were confronted by a huge dust cloud caused by the wayward bombing raid, causing them to make their run-ins at different altitudes to those planned. The despatching problem was compounded by an increase in flak which caused the pilots to take evasive action throwing the paras around in the back and weighed down by their equipment it was difficult for them to stand up and move into position to exit the aircraft. This resulted in most of the battalion missing the DZ completely, many bogged down by the weight of their equipment, drowning in the surrounding fields which had been flooded by the Germans.

When Otway finally reached the RV, it was nearly 02:00 and he was dismayed to find that there was hardly anybody there. Only 150 men of the original force finally arrived. It was less than 25% of those who had set out and they did not have any of the equipment needed for the assault, only side-arms, one Vickers machine gun and twenty Bangalore Torpedoes. At 02:50 Otway could wait no longer and set out for the objective, reaching the designated ‘firm base’ area, about 450m from the battery, at 04:20.

The original reconnaissance group, under the command of Major Allen Parry was given the task of forming the assault party and divided his group into four, in a rough imitation of the original plan. They would make two large gaps in the wire and send two of the assault groups through each. A pathway through the minefield was painstakingly cleared by one of the Company Sergeant Major’s and an officer who had crawled up to the wire, in order to listen and observe German movements.  Otway waited to launch the attack as the glider borne force arrived, but things went wrong again. One of the three gliders broke its tow rope just after take-off, the second landed several miles east of the battery and the third was hit by flak, overshot the target and crashed in an orchard some distance from the perimeter.

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Otway knew that he would have to make do with the force that was in place and at 04:30 the assault went in. A diversion attack was staged at the main gate, whilst the Bangalore Torpedoes were used to blow gaps in the wire and the paras stormed into the Battery. After about 20 minutes of fierce hand to hand fighting the defenders surrendered and the paras entered the casemates. Without the explosives needed to disable the guns the paras did what they could to make the guns in-effective, dropping No.82 (Gammon bomb) grenades down the barrels and throwing away the breech blocks. Only 75 paras were still on their feet, 22 Germans had been taken prisoner and the position was now being bombarded by German artillery. At 05:00 Otway and his surviving paras left the battery and after a short break at the designated RV point, the Calvary Cross about 850m to the south-east, continued to their secondary objective, the village of La Plein where they linked up with elements of the 1st Commando Brigade later in the day.

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German troops of the 736th Grenadier Regiment quickly re-occupied the Battery after the paras left and two of the guns were able to be brought back into action, bringing accurate fire onto SWORD beach. On 7 June, the battery was assaulted by 4 and 5 Troops of No.3 Commando who suffered heavy losses in the action that followed.

Whilst the effectiveness of the Battery had been diminished, the British never succeeded in completely neutralising it and the Battery remained under German control until they began their withdrawal in mid-August.

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The Merville Battery Museum is situated in the original casemates of the battle and opened on 5 June 1983 as way of preserving the memory of the exploits of the men of the 9th Battalion, the Parachute Regiment. The museum extends over five hectares with an education trail explaining how the Battery worked and the attack of 6 June 1944.

At the entrance, which is the site of the diversionary attack, there is a Memorial to the 9th Parachute Battalion and small gift shop. Visitors are then free to explore the area following the information boards and diagrams to gain an idea of what happened. The four casemates each feature different displays relating to aspects of the battle and there are also artillery pieces, memorials and the Douglas C-47, serial number 43-15073 ‘SNAFU’ which dropped American paratroopers of the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment on the Cotentin Peninsula during D-Day.

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Casemate No. 1 replicates the events at the Battery on D-Day with a very intense sound and light show occurring every 20 minutes. The show commences with the bombing raid conducted by 109 Lancaster bombers at 00:30, followed by the German artillery being fired  at the canal locks at Ouistreham and the Parachute Regiment attack. Casemate No. 2 is a memorial to the 9th Battalion, the Parachute Regiment featuring various objects, photos and stories of the men who took part in the attack. Casemate No.3 shows objects related to the Glider Pilot Regiment, No.3 Commando, 45 Royal Marine Commando and the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion who acted as a protection force on the left flank during the operation. Casemate No. 4 is dedicated to the Belgian, Dutch, Luxembourg and British units which finally drove the Germans out of Merville in August 1945.

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German Navy Kriegsmarine uniforms on display in casemate No.1. Photo: Julian Tennant

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Casemate No.2 is dedicated to the men of the 9th Parachute Battalion, the Parachute Regiment. Photo: Julian Tennant

A trip to the Merville Battery can easily be combined with a visit to the nearby Pegasus Bridge museum, stopping at various marker points along the way. Major & Mrs Holt’s D-Day Normandy Landing Beaches guide gives an excellent overview of the points of interest in the area and I spent the best part of a day examining this area. As a airborne insignia and militaria collector, I must admit that whilst I particularly enjoyed the Pegasus Bridge museum,  the Merville Battery really helped to convey an understanding of the battle, particularly from the defender’s perspective via the ‘sound and light’ show in Casemate No.1. I think it made me think about bomb scarred defences on the cliff tops at Pointe du Hoc very differently than I would have, when I visited that site the following day.

Musée de la Batterie de Merville
Place du 9ème Bataillon
14810 Merville-Franceville
France

Website: http://www.batterie-merville.com
Phone: +33 (0)2 3191 4753

Open: Every day from 10:00 until 19:00. Last entry at 17:30

 

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The 1st Laotian Parachute Battalion badge 1952 – 1954

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Original 1952 issue 1er Battaillon de Parachutistes Laotiens (1BPL) badge. The parachute and wings represent the airborne status of the unit. The four tiered parasol surrounded by three elephants symbolises Laotian royalty and reflects the legend that Khoun Borom founded the Kingdom after arriving on a white elephant and protected from the sun by a 4 tiered white parasol. The three elephants also symbolise the three principalities of Laos until 1947. The red enamel work reflects the national colour. The motto can be translated as “Dare to Conquer” or “As Courage Triumphs”. 2000 of these badges were ordered from the Drago company in 1952 and features the “Drago Paris Nice 43. R.  Olivier Metra” hallmark. Collection: Julian Tennant

 

The first Lao parachute unit, 1ere Compagnie de Commandos Parachutistes Laotiens (1ere CCPL)  was raised by the French in July 1948 from soldiers of the 3rd Company of the 1st Laotian Chasseur Battalion (1ere BCL). On 11 May 1949 it conducted its first operational parachute jump when 18 commandos were deployed to reinforce the garrison of Luang Nam Tha. By the end of the year it had carried out six more airborne operations and by April 1951 the unit had expanded from three to six commando sections. Then, in October 1951, Commandos 4, 5 and 6 were removed to form the basis of the 2nd company for a new unit, the 1st Laotian Parachute Battalion (1er Battaillon de Parachutistes Laotiens 1 BPL)

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Forerunners to 1st Laotian Parachute Battalion, Laotian paratroopers of 1st Laotian Parachute Commando Company (1ere CCPL) boarding an aircraft for a training jump in 1950.

On 1 April 1952, 1BPL was formally established with a strength of 853 men, including 13 French officers and 46 NCO’s, divided into a headquarters and three companies. By the end of the year the battalion had participated in 20 operations of which 6 included parachute insertions. In December 1952, during Operation Noel, 576 men from the unit parachuted into Sam Neua (Xam Neua) in north-eastern Laos to reinforce the garrison there. Then, in February 1953, a fourth company of 80 more paratroopers jumped in to bolster the garrison strength. However, in April 1953, the Viet Minh launched an invasion of north-eastern Laos crushing the garrison and forcing the remnants of the battalion to flee toward the Plain of Jars.

In May the unit was reformed at its base in Chinaïmo army camp on the eastern outskirts of Vientiane, undertaking commando and reconnaissance tasks north of Luang Prabang. In March 1954, 1er BPL began preparations for the relief of Dien Bien Phu as part of Operation Condor and by early May the battalion had relocated close to the Lao-Vietnamese border but withdrew after the French garrison surrendered.  On 18 June 1954 the unit regrouped at the French Air Force base at Seno near Savannakhet, then conducted the last airborne operation of the war when it parachuted into the town of Phanop in Khammouane Province to link up with militia units to clear the territory up to the Mu Gia Pass on the Vietnamese border.

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An unknown French officer serving with 1BPL. Note the enameled unit badge on his right breast pocket and the standard French parachutist beret badge. During the period of 1BPL, the standard French wings were also worn. The distinctive Lao style beret badge which replaced the sword with a trident and also the Lao parachute wings, were created after the French departure and 1 BPL had been re-designated 1st Parachute Battalion of the  Armée Nationale Laotiènne. Collection: Julian Tennant.

On 6 August 1954, following the implementation of the ceasefire in Indochina, 1BPL returned to Seno where it was integrated into the Laotian National Army (ANL). In October, following the departure of its French cadre it was redesignated the 1st Parachute Battalion  (1er Bataillon Parachutiste – 1BP).

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Laotian paratrooper of 1BPL circa 1954. Note the standard French parachutist beret badge worn by 1BPL.

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Comparison of my original 1952 French DRAGO OM hallmarked 1st Laotian Parachute Battalion badge (top) and a well made fake (bottom) that I first encountered during a trip to Vietnam in mid to late 2000. The fakes tend to feel slightly heavier than what you would expect for these badges and I suspect that is because of the alloys used. A very noticeable and critical point of difference is that the irregular hatching on the back does not match that of the originals. Nor does the text detail, which is a bit larger and less well defined as it is on the original. The detail and finish of the front of the badge is also lacking the fine precision of the original and this is particularly obvious on the elephants, text and parachute lines. Experience counts when looking at these badges. During that first encounter with the fakes in Vietnam it was only because several dealers at the notorious Dan Sinh market had examples of this and other rare French period badges that the red flags went up. At first glance the badges could be mistaken for original, but when compared to an original the differences are obvious. Caveat Emptor!

 

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Note that this site has NEW content posted every Sunday! If you like what you see here, please follow this page via email or by using either the buttons below or in the column on the right. Knowing that somebody is looking at this gives me the encouragement I need to go through my archives and collection to develop the content for the page. And of course, feel free to contact me here, via email or by visiting my Facebook or Instagram pages

Airborne Assault Museum – IWM Duxford, United Kingdom

The Airborne Assault Museum traces the history of British Airborne Forces since their beginning in 1940 to the present day. The museum was originally established by the Committee of the Parachute Regiment Association in October 1946 and relocated from its former home in Browning Barracks, Aldershot to Hangar no.1 (Building 213) of the Imperial War Museum at Duxford in 2008.

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Service Dress Jacket based on a WW1 Royal Flying Corps “maternity” tunic, worn by Lt-Gen Frederick Browning GCVO KBE CB DSO, the father of the British Airborne Forces. This uniform, designed by Browning was made of barathea with a false Uhlan-style front, incorporating a zip opening at the neck to reveal regulation shirt and tie. It was worn with medal ribbons, collar patches and rank badges, capped off with grey kid gloves, a Guards Sam Browne belt and swagger stick. Above the medal ribbons you can also see the Army Air Corps wings which he also had a hand in designing and qualified as a pilot himself in 1942.

Whilst relatively small and tucked away in the back corner of the hangar, the museum is extremely well done. The outside the entrance some of the heavy equipment used by the Airborne Forces is on display, but the really interesting stuff, for a collector like me, was inside. Lots of uniforms, weapons, personal kit and artifacts related to the Parachute Regiment and other Airborne soldiers from the time of their formation in 1940 through the various campaigns of WW2 to post war operations in the Suez crisis,  Borneo, Aden, Northern Ireland, The Falklands, Kosovo, the Middle East and Afghanistan.

To visit Airborne Assault you have to buy an entry ticket to the Imperial War Museum Duxford, which will also give you entry to the other exhibition spaces, including the Land Warfare Display and the Royal Anglian Regiment Museum both of which are also worth a visit along with the other air warfare related displays. I’ll do a review and show some pictures of those exhibits in a future post.

Airborne Assault IWM Duxford Photo: Julian Tennant

‘Bing’ the ParaDog. ParaDogs were trained to parachute with the troops and subsequently undertake guard, mine-detecting and patrol duties. ‘Bing’, war dog 2720/6871, was assigned to the recce platoon of 13 Para. His first operational jump was in Normandy on 6 June 1944 and served in France until September 1944 and on 24 March 1945 he parachuted over the Rhine. ‘Bing’ remained in Germany until the war’s end, before being returned to his original owner. On 29 March 1947, ‘Bing’ was awarded the Dickin Medal which is given to animals for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty while serving in conflict.

 

Airborne Assault
Building 213
Imperial War Museum Duxford
Cambridge
CB22 4QR                                                                                                                                                   United Kingdom

Email: askthearchive@paradata.org.uk                                                                                            https://www.paradata.org.uk/article/airborne-assault-museum-iwm-duxford

Open every day from 10am, including Bank Holidays                                                              Opening times for the Winter (October to March) are:
10am – 5pm                                                                                                                                               Opening times for the Summer (March to October) are:
10am – 6pm                                                                                                                                               Closed 24, 25 and 26 December.

 

Airborne Assault Duxford map

Airborne Assault - The Museum of the Parachute Regiment & Airborne Forces.

Airborne Assault – The Museum of the Parachute Regiment & Airborne Forces. © Julian Tennant